A Comprehensive Guide to Dairy-Free Chocolate

Feb 7, 2020

Yes—chocolate is dairy-free. Well, true chocolate that is. Thanks to childhood memories of snacking on mass-marketed milk chocolate products which contained a slew of additional ingredients and fillers to increase shelf life and satiate America’s sugary palates, many of us assumed that we’d have to give up chocolate along with dairy. Thankfully, this could not be farther from the truth. Consider this your comprehensive guide to chocolate—just in time for Valentine’s Day. 

Chocolate: The Basics

Most of us are familiar with three kinds of chocolate—dark, milk, and white (which some claim is not technically chocolate, but that’s a conversation for another day). By their very nature, both milk and white chocolate contain dairy. Dark chocolate, however, should be fair game. By the Oxford Dictionary definition, dark chocolate is, “a slightly bitter chocolate, of a deep brown color, without added milk.” There you have it. 

What’s In Dark Chocolate?

Dark chocolate in its purest, most delectable form should only contain two ingredients—cacao beans and sugar. However, most dark chocolate you’ll find—with the exception of small-batch, independent chocolatiers—contains a stabilizer and often a flavoring. Soy lecithin and vanilla are two of the most common stabilizers and flavorings, and both are completely dairy-free. You may also find cocoa butter in your favorite bar, and despite its name, it does not contain dairy. Cocoa butter is a fat derived entirely from the cacao bean—it’s used to suspend the sugar crystals within the chocolate which contributes to a smoother consistency. Sometimes, a manufacturer will use a combination of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter to create its product—don’t worry—both are natural components extracted from the cacao bean. There’s nothing artificial (or dairy-derived) in these two ingredients. 

Do Percentages Matter?

Most chocolate bars—particularly the dark varieties—will note a percentage on the wrapper. This percentage indicates the ratio of cacao beans to sugar. The higher the percentage, the more cacao and stronger the chocolate taste; higher percentages are also less sweet because they contain less sugar. Technically, dark chocolate can have a cacao percentage as low as 15-percent by US standards (43-percent by European standards), but chocolate connoisseurs recommend a bar that is 70-percent cacao and above. You’ll also receive the most health benefits from these bars, which we’ll get to later. Note—like wine, cacao beans vary wildly in flavor and sweetness, so a 70-percent bar from one brand may taste more bitter than a 73-percent bar from another. It all comes down to trial and error, and when it comes to taste-testing chocolate, we’re happy to go through this “rigorous” testing process to find our perfect bar. 

Is Dark Chocolate Healthy?

The short answer is yes—in moderation. Cacao is extremely high in antioxidants which help reduce inflammation. It also contains theobromine which has been associated with improving blood flow by increasing vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels). A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggested that dark chocolate—its flavonoids, specifically—can enhance performance by reducing oxygen cost. Cacao is also associated with mood-boosting properties. Beyond the fact that it tastes good, cacao contains anandamide—often referred to as the “bliss molecule—” which promotes feelings of happiness. 

All that being said, we don’t recommend going through bars like you do bananas. Dark chocolate still contains added sugar and shouldn’t be used as a supplement for daily snacks or full meals. But, if you want to enjoy more than two measly squares of 70-percent dark every night, we certainly won’t discourage the habit. 

Dark Chocolate Imposters 

Unfortunately, despite the Oxford definition, there is some chocolate on the market that claims to be “dark” but contains milk or milk derivatives. Common ingredients to look out for include skim milk, butterfat, whey, butter oil, milk powder, lactose, and malt. Companies that always include milk or milk-based fillers in their dark chocolate include Hersey, Godiva, Lindt, Dove, Cadbury, and most Ghirardelli varieties. Fear not, there are plenty of high-quality, equally delicious chocolate brands that don’t use dairy. 

Dairy-Free Dark Chocolate Brands

As noted above, dark chocolate shouldn’t contain dairy. However, here are a few brands you can trust without even looking at the label:

  • Alter Eco
  • Cocoa Parlor
  • Dandelion Chocolate
  • Endangered Species
  • Equal Exchange
  • Green & Black’s
  • Hu
  • Sjaak’s
  • Theo Chocolate
  • Whole Foods 

*Note: this is for dark chocolate bars only. Some of these brands produce milk chocolate and/or flavored dark chocolates, which may contain dairy. 

Dairy-Free Milk Chocolates

Due to the rise of the dairy-free movement, several companies have released delicious dairy-free versions of milk chocolate. Many of these contain oat milk in lieu of cows’ milk. All are sweet, smooth, and perfectly reminiscent of that milk chocolate you grew up with. More and more dairy-free options are coming out every day, but to start, try the following:

  • Charm School Chocolate
  • Endangered Species Oat Milk Chocolate
  • No Whey Foods
  • Pascha Organics
  • Raaka Chocolate
  • Sjaak’s

Bookmark this page and take it with you as you peruse the chocolate aisle. We guarantee you’ll be delighted at just how many dairy-free chocolates exist!


Image credit: Dandelion Chocolate

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